Magazine article The Spectator

'Churchill's Rebels: Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford', by Meredith Whitford - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Churchill's Rebels: Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford', by Meredith Whitford - Review

Article excerpt

Churchill's Rebels: Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford Meredith Whitford

Umbria Press, pp.320, £12.95, ISBN: 9781910074015

Even ardent Mitfordians must quake at the sight of yet another biography of the sisterhood. There have been more forests felled in the name of Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah Freeman-Mitford than the Brontë sisters. Jessica alone produced two volumes of memoirs, Hons and Rebels (1960) and A Fine Old Conflict (1977); her collected letters (Decca , 2006) came in at a thumping 700 pages and in 2010, Irrepressible , Leslie Brody's biography of Jessica's years in the United States, appeared. 'Enough already', one can hear her American sisters cry.

Yet with Churchill's Rebels , Meredith Whitford, a South Australian author of historical novels, has brought a clear eye and a fresh pen to the early life of Jessica and her first husband, Esmond Romilly. Despite the title, Whitford has, in her very first sentence, set us straight. Esmond was in fact the nephew of Clementine Churchill (his mother, Nellie Romilly, née Hozier, was her sister), not Winston's, although the latter nobly played the role of uncle to his wayward nephew. Nellie was also a first cousin (there is a strong suggestion that she was half-sister) of Jessica's father, David Redesdale. Cousinage and sisterhood intensified.

The intensity was all the greater given how briefly the lover-cousins were a couple -- from February 1937, when, within a week of their meeting, the teenagers eloped to Spain, until June 1941, when Jessica was in America and Esmond, having trained in the Canadian airforce, was posted to Bomber Command -- a mere four years and four months of escapes and scrapes. He disappeared in a bombing mission over the North Sea on 30 November 1941. And with Esmond's death, Whitford's story ends. Mitford spouses rarely score equal billing, but Whitford seems keen to rescue Romilly from the bad press he has had in the Mitford canon. Not only did he cut their Decca off from them, but he failed to succumb to the rest of the brood's famed charm.

Romilly's fervour, his courage and his love for his wife shine through, but despite the author's efforts, or perhaps because of her devotion to the facts, his opportunism and great ability to hate fail to make this shooting star lovable. Jessica had these traits too, but she had another 55 years to establish herself as an unmitigated Mitford -- an eminently readable author, but also, in her case, a celebrated crusader and much admired muckraker. …

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